For the past two years, the carcass of a 78-foot blue whale that washed ashore near Ophir has been submerged in Yaquina Bay in Newport where scavengers have been cleaning the bones.
The goal is to assemble the bones in the new Marine Studies Building Oregon State University will open in late 2019 in Newport.
The whale, which was severely emaciated when it ran ashore in November 2015, was believed to have starved after being unable to find food in the algae-infestation affecting the ocean at the time. It is also thought the behemoth was ultimately killed by orcas — killer whales — that attack blue whales.
Blue whales, the largest mammal in the world, aren’t usually seen along the Oregon Coast, although they do live in the North Pacific Ocean. They’re rare, having almost been hunted to extinction in the 19th century — and there are only five intact skeletons in the country.
It was the second whale to wash up on the beach in Curry County in recent years. In 2012, a sperm whale landed on a small beach at Chetco Point; its body was left there to disintegrate.
But then-Curry County Commissioner David Brock Smith saw a better future for the Ophir blue whale.
He envisioned the bones hanging in Docia Sweet Hall at the Event Center on the Beach in Gold Beach.
But first, oceanographers had to get the multi-ton carcass off the beach.
They flocked to the beach with front-end loaders, Dumpsters and saws, all the while fighting the incoming tide that tugged on the whale to bring it back to sea. It took 10 days to remove 58 tons of blubber, load the rest into a Dumpster and haul it away.
Two years later
The cleansing process is nearly complete, according to researchers with the Marine Mammal Institute. They plan to bring the skeleton to the surface and treat it with chemicals to pull the oil from its bones to keep them from going rancid.
There’s just one problem: Despite all the volunteers working on the project, they’re short about $125,000 for the chemicals needed to extract the oil from the bones.
“It’s critical to get the oil out of the bones to help preserve the skeleton,” said Bruce Mate, an OSU whale expert and director of the institute. “The chemicals we need are both carcinogenic and flammable, so they have to be handled carefully. They are expensive and need special recycling procedures.”
Mate oversaw the preservation work of a 30-foot minke whale decades ago that now hangs outside the Guin Library at the marine science center.
But this whale is much bigger.
The bones that remain are immense — a small school bus would fit inside the whale’s mouth.
“We had sections of the vertebrae that two people together could not lift, so we had to use a small front-end loader,” Mate said. “To properly treat the bones, we’ll have to fill large livestock troughs with the chemicals and do it more or less one bone or section at a time.”
In addition to the chemicals, the researchers will need a secure place indoors to work and assemble the project.
“Just setting the bones out in a dry yard to get the oil out does not work,” Mate said. “The remaining oil in the bones needs to be extracted or they will leak over time and have a foul odor.”
This blue whale arriving on the Oregon Coast is a rare event — the first documented incident since Lewis and Clark made their historic journey west.
“The emotional impact of seeing such a large whale alive is profound — and I’ve seen dead ones all around the world,” Mate said. “Many people around me while we worked on this dead whale occasionally broke down in tears. It was a life-changing moment for some of them. At more than 100 tons, some blue whales are the equivalent of 1,300 people in biomass.”
Divers have been checking on the bones, which are submerged in huge bags and tied to railroad wheels in Yaquina Bay. Most of the bones are ready for treatment, though the skull still has quite a bit of flesh to remove.
“We just need the funding,” Mate said. “The job is a big one and will require specialized equipment along with the chemicals. Unfortunately, state and federal agencies are not set up to fund this kind of work, but the educational value for the project would be immense.”
For more information on the Blue Whale Articulation project, contact the OSU Marine Mammal Institute at 541-867-0202.